'Man School' Turkish Dads Discover Self-Help in Berlin

For Turkish men living in Germany, talking about difficult life issues -- sex, women, abandonment and raising children -- is not always easy. But one group in Berlin has found a way to help its members reflect upon their roles and their traditions -- and sometimes to change their lives.

The last time Muhammet A. saw his wife outside a courtroom, she hit him. They'd been married for 20 years and had five children together, but now she stood in the doorway of his new apartment in Berlin's Neukölln district, screaming and pounding her fists against his chest.

He had hardly seen her since she left him abruptly in the spring of 2005. Now she was yelling at him in Turkish and demanding the children back. But Muhammet had already decided that she wouldn't get the children. So, now, there was only one important thing to do -- stay calm. "If you stay calm," Kazim Erdogan, a 55-year-old psychologist, had told him in a fathers' group, "then you can have everything, absolutely everything."

So Muhammet held his fingers firmly laced behind his back -- another trick Erdogan had taught him -- so that his hands wouldn't accidentally slip out of his control. If they did, the Office of Youth and Family Services would certainly take his children away, even if he lashed out only once and in self-defense. The world can be so unfair -- and the others in the fathers' group agree.

'Man School'

Muhammet, 39, goes to the fathers' group meetings every Monday evening. It's a regular part of his schedule -- between 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday is a time for talking. There, he meets more than a dozen other Turkish men at the Office of Youth and Family Services in Neukölln, where they sit around a table with a blue checkered cloth, drink tea from tulip-shaped glasses and talk about their trials and troubles. It's not just about letting off steam; these men also want to learn how they can become better fathers and husbands. It's a sort of "man school" with night classes for guys who've realized they have to change.

Many Turkish and Arabic men have been criticized for their alleged self-righteousness, their adamant defense of archaic customs. A daughter who dares to venture into a disco, for example, will soon feel her father's wrath -- and even worse if she shows up with a boyfriend.

Erdogan's fathers' group is like taking a trip to another world. Here, men like Muhammet free themselves from old ways of thinking -- and there are apparently more men wanting to do so than many think. The groups have grown rapidly since Erdogan started the first one up over two years ago. In Berlin alone, there are now eight of these groups.

Broken Promises

Muhammet, for one, would have never dreamed that his 12-year-old son would one day show him a photograph that his ex-wife Güleyla had taped up in the stairwell of his apartment building -- as he believes, to make him lose his nerve in their custody battle. The picture showed his ex-wife locked in a loving embrace with her new boyfriend.

Even as a child, Muhammet A. knew that Turkish couples sometimes separate, too, but he never thought it would happen to him. Raising his children alone was never part of his life plan.

His family comes from a mountain village on the Black Sea, a place with 70 houses and many more cows, goats and sheep. The situation for farmers there in the 1960s was so grim that his father -- like many other young Turkish men -- left for Germany to seek better opportunities.

Muhammet grew up in Berlin, finished secondary school, completed an apprenticeship and has worked ever since in a factory for synthetic materials. At 17, he married his 18-year-old cousin from his father's mountain village in Turkey. To their parents' delight, the couple got along well and went on to have five children -- three sons and two daughters.

And then one Saturday in the spring of 2005, Muhammet's life changed in the blink of an eye. He went to pick Güleyla up at Berlin's Tegel Airport, where she was supposedly returning after visiting relatives in Turkey for a couple weeks. He stood outside the baggage-claim gate and waited, but she never emerged. When he reached her on the phone, she gave him a not altogether convincing explanation. He mailed her a second and third return plane ticket; they went unused.

Then one night the phone rang; it was a relative in the village. "I saw Güleyla with another man," she said. Her tone gave Muhammet the impression that he was now expected to act.

Separation, Loneliness and Hate

Turkish tradition allows for the killing of unfaithful women by their husbands or families. For example, just a few months earlier, in February 2005, a Turkish woman named Hatun Sürücü had been murdered by her brother on a street in Berlin. Three shots to her head were allegedly enough to restore the family's so-called honor. Muhammet was aware of this tradition and this act. As he will admit, he too had "many bad thoughts." But he also thought of his children -- and refrained from acting.

For two months, he didn't tell anyone what had happened -- not his parents, not his colleagues. Then one evening, two friends from his school days visited him at home. As they sat over a glass of tea, one of the friends naturally asked where Güleyla was.

That was the moment when his new self-imposed discipline was really put to the test. The two men badmouthed his wife, calling her things that Muhammet would have preferred not to hear.

The anger and pain didn't ease for another year and a half. In fact, it didn't start to get better until he joined the fathers' group. There, he can talk about things. And talking helps. The men understand him. Most of them have also been abandoned by their wives. They know firsthand what separation, loneliness and hate feel like.

At times, the voices in the group grow louder. Many of the men tell stories about how their wives took the children -- and how they now have to fight for every hour they spend with them. At other times, their complaints are more general. One such topic is Germany's system of social benefits. Back in Turkey, women used to be more financially dependent on their husbands; they couldn't just pack up and leave. Here, they can.

'We Only Talk About Soccer'

As the men talk themselves into a rage, Erdogan keeps silent for a long time. With his hands resting gently on his knees, he sits -- and listens. He knows that, at some point after many opinions have been shared, there will be a pause. And that is when he lifts his voice.

When that happens, the group goes instantly silent. The men respect Erdogan. They want to learn from him. He is their "hoca," or teacher. And, like a teacher, Erdogan will boil down the discussion, or shepherd it along, or takes the men out of their comfort zone by posing a question they've never been asked, such as: "What is honor for you?"

No one in the group has voiced his support for "honor killings." But, for all of them, their honor is still somehow tied up with their wives' faithfulness and their daughters' chastity. Erdogan knows this. And, for him, it's a warning sign. At such moments, he always repeats: "Only my own behavior determines my honor."

Erdogan wants to enlighten these men; he wants to make them reflect. He wants them to realize that there are other things besides their own traditions. He formed this group in his spare time; during normal working hours, he can be found in the psychosocial services office of Neukölln. In the beginning, he spent a lot of time visiting the area's many coffeehouses looking for men who might want to join the group. It wasn't easy. After all, what man is ready to admit that he's in dire need of help?

And yet, once they've come, few leave. Some come hoping to talk about the problems they have with government agencies. Muhammet, for example, attended his first meeting because he had heard that he could get some parenting tips.

By then, Muhammet was living alone with his children. Unlike many Turkish men, he at least knew where they went to school and what size clothes they wore; but he didn't know much more than that. In most Turkish families, the women are in charge of daily life. And he couldn't exactly ask his friends such questions. "We only talk about soccer," he says.

In the fathers' group, though, the men even go so far as to talk about love and sex. For his part, Erdogan tries to act as a bridge between the sexes. He knows why many marriages fail, and he knows the grievances of many Muslim wives. His office is no stranger to the many wives who have filled tissues with tears faster than he could hand them to them.

The women say that their husbands hardly even speak to them, yet expect them to be superstars at washing, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children -- and, of course, in bed. If not, there's trouble. Many wives -- at least those with exceptional patience and endurance -- put up with it their whole lives. Others don't. They leave -- and their husbands no longer understand the world.

Learning from the Veterans of Pain

The lack of communication that grips many of these families ultimately tears them apart. Dursun G., 65, didn't realize that that was happening in his family until it was almost too late. With three children and three grandchildren, he's one of the oldest men in the fathers' group. He's a proud man. To show him respect, the others call him Grandpa Dursun.

Dursun came to Germany in 1968 and worked as a lathe operator in a number of factories until 1990, the year of Germany's reunification. He raised his children just like he was raised in a village in Anatolia -- with a firm hand. Talking and tenderness weren't part of the equation.

That was before he saw his son Cuat hanging around Berlin's Kottbusser Tor subway station 23 years ago with people who looked like junkies. Dursun screamed at his son and commanded him to immediately come home. But it didn't help. The next day, his son was back at the subway station again, smoking pot and doing other drugs.

Having reached the limits of his authority, Dursun started drinking. Then one day a friend told him: "If you keep doing what you're doing, you're going to lose your son. You have to be strong." In the end, he could think of only one solution: He put Cuat on a plane to Turkey and told him he could come back once he'd agreed to go to therapy.

Dursun G. never wants to re-experience that feeling of helplessness. He's trying to do things differently with his grandchildren. He plays with them, talks to them and listens to their stories. He wants to impart the lessons he's learned to the other men. And he does it in a calm, wise way. He does it like Erdogan, listening for a long time before eventually saying a few sentences that make an impression upon the other fathers.

Muhammet is learning a great deal from these conversations. During the day, his mother often takes care of the children. Even though he's often the only man there, he also goes regularly to parents' evenings at his children's school. He was relieved when his son starting bringing home better grades again.

"I'm mother, father and friend, all in one," he says.

He sounds like every other modern single parent.

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